Two women argue in a kitchen

Resolving roommate disputes

January 22, 2023
Author: Michael Witcomb

A guide to avoiding and repairing conflicts

At this time of year, you’re stuck inside more and you’ve been living with your roommates for a few months. Small differences are now major irritations and relationships are tense. If this sounds familiar, don’t despair! We’ve all been there, and the summer months are coming! To help you regain a peaceful household, VIU Off-Campus Housing has a few ideas for avoiding and repairing roommate conflicts.

Avoiding Disputes

Complete a roommate agreement

Ideally, before you move in, but it might also be a useful tool if things have already boiled over. Be specific: “We will take turns taking out the garbage the night before collection” is better than “We should regularly take out the garbage.” Example agreements and discussion questions are on the Off-Campus Housing website.

Pick your battles and take the long view

Someone else’s hair in the drain is unpleasant, but compared to regular all-night parties, is it worth the argument? And for most of us, minor annoyances fade away soon after finishing university. Take a deep breath and picture yourself in a few months from now. Hair in the shower drain? No problem.

Be the change

Okay, it’s not easy when you’re the only one scrubbing the toilet every week, but maybe start with quietly setting the standards. Your good habits might just rub off on others.

Change your outlook

Before voicing your irritations, consider challenging your own outlook. Do your roommates like the temperature lower than you’re used to? You could put on a sweater and be cozy. If you do need to reflect your concerns, be careful and try to use available and private support networks. It’s harder to fix the problem if your roommate learns you’ve been complaining to classmates. Consider a confidential chat with a member of the VIU counselling team instead.

Resolving Conflicts

If you really do need to tackle the issue, try these guidelines to help you avoid toxic fallout.

Start communicating early

Your roommate used up all your milk and there’s none for your morning coffee. It’s no big deal so you let it go. But six weeks later, it’s still happening and now it’s a more awkward conversation.

Talk in-person

Face-to-face chats beat notes on the fridge or text messages, which can be misunderstood and don’t encourage empathy.

Pick a good time

You want a calm, unpressured chat. First thing in the morning or rushing to get to the bus while still half-asleep won’t be the best time to raise an issue. If possible, find light-hearted ways to open difficult discussions.

State your needs and wants

Start with an honest explanation about the problem – with reasons. Try to use “I” not “you” to build empathy. “I need to know there’s milk for my breakfast. I have busy mornings and don’t do well without. I’d love to share but I’m on a tight budget this year.”

Be specific about the problem

Avoid personalized generalizations and extreme language. Instead of “You drive me absolutely crazy with your constant milk-stealing!” try, “Yesterday I didn’t have any milk in the morning and it was a problem for me.”

Empathy flows both ways

Asking your roommate about their needs and wants may be helpful. Are they overworked or struggling to keep to their budget? Although you can’t solve these problems, hearing them could encourage a healthier outcome.

Remember to listen

It’s easy to jump in before the other person has finished speaking but be patient. And a response that’s framed “Yes, and …” creates a more positive stepping-stone. We always remember the negative in “Yes, but …” don’t we?

Step back

After a tricky chat, allow for bruised feelings and raised emotions on both sides. Give yourselves some cooling-off time. Maybe suggest a chat the next day over dinner. When you do, encourage a collaborative solution: “So, what do you think we should do about X?” Remember, everyone thinks they’re right and, sometimes, you’ll need to compromise. There are likely shared positives to focus on, and future goals that work for everyone.

If all else fails …

Ultimately, if you just can’t work it out and you do need to find somewhere new to live, take time to get to know your legal rights and responsibilities. It might take a few weeks to end your tenancy and practical discussions can help you avoid emotional scenes. VIU Off-Campus Housing can support you and help you explore options – visit our website to learn more, get in touch and book a meeting.

Michael Witcomb is VIU's Off-Campus Housing Coordinator. 

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